UPDATED at 12:20 A.M. EST on 2017-12-20
More than 100 government-aligned trade unions and federations have filed a joint lawsuit against the former leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), Chea Mony, accusing him of calling for international sanctions against the government for dissolving the country’s opposition party.
In November, Cambodia’s Supreme Court disbanded the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and barred 118 of its officials from politics for five years for the party’s involvement in an alleged plot to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. CNRP President Kem Sokha has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest in September on charges of “treason.”
In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service last week, Chea Mony urged the European Union and U.S. to place sanctions on Cambodia “the sooner the better,” in a bid to pressure Hun Sen’s government to reinstate the CNRP, release Kem Sokha, and reverse a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the media, ahead of a general election set for July next year.
On Monday, a group of 120 lesser-known trade unions and federations, led by the government-aligned Cambodian Union Federation (CUF), filed a lawsuit against Chea Mony, demanding he be charged with “incitement” for suggesting that the EU and U.S. end orders of exports from Cambodia that prop up the livelihoods of the country’s workers—particularly those in the garment sector.
The lawsuit, which alleges that Chea Mony seeks to “make the workers hate the government and rise up against it,” also argues for U.S. $1 million in compensation to be paid to the country’s laborers.
According to a report by the Phnom Penh Post, one of the plaintiffs, Long Sophat, of pro-government Youth Spirit Confederation for Cambodian Labour, said he also plans to file a court complaint against the 118 CNRP officials banned from politics, but declined to provide details.
Chea Mony on Monday denied the allegations in the lawsuit and stood by his comments to RFA last week.
“My major concern is whether the court is independent or not,” he said.
“With regard to this lawsuit filed by various trade unions and federations, I am not concerned because I don’t think that they listened to the full content of the interview with RFA.”
Chea Mony noted that during the interview, he was asked whether he was concerned that the EU might terminate assistance to Cambodia and block purchases of textile products from the country.
“I replied that I’m very concerned … since it will affect the garment workers and others who benefit from the workers, and that all of this will have occurred as a result of the Cambodian government’s persecution of the CNRP, including the arrest and jailing of the CNRP’s leader,” he said.
“That is what I said. I didn’t appeal to the EU to place sanctions on Cambodia. I don’t have the power to do so.”
Chea Mony said he was also not concerned for his safety, despite noticing that “people wearing civilian clothes … have been observing my residence for a couple of months.”
The former union leader’s brother Chea Vichea, who founded the FTUWKC, was shot dead in 2004 while reading a newspaper at a kiosk in the capital Phnom Penh, and his killers have yet to be brought to justice.
Chea Mony has routinely spoken out against Hun Sen's government, warning of "chaos" and "uprisings" since the dissolution of the CNRP, and slammed authorities for failing to find his brother's killers. The FTUWKC, which remains influential among Cambodia's workers, has been listed as one of 11 "opposition" trade unions that favors the CNRP by the Cambodian National Police General Commissariat as part of its diagram outlining the alleged plot to topple the government.
Executive Director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) Moeun Tola, who monitors labor and worker rights in Cambodia, told RFA Tuesday that he considers the lawsuit against Chea Mony “groundless” and suggested it would further deteriorate freedom of expression in the country.
“The international community will still see that the current political crisis, the devolution of democracy and human rights violations in Cambodia, are very serious issues,” he said.
“Therefore, they will [continue] to come up with various forms of pressure to make Cambodia return to the democracy track.”
Moeun Tola disagreed that Chea Mony’s comments would have had any bearing on whether the international community decides to pursue sanctions against Cambodia.
“Even if Chea Mony hadn’t said that, the international community would still take action,” he said.
“Should the court dare take action, it will be like throwing fuel on fire!”
Last week, the U.S. and EU said they plan to compile lists of individuals who spearheaded the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view of leveling sanctions against them, and have pledged to review trade agreements with the country.
Both the U.S. and EU have also announced that they are withdrawing funding of the election next year, and Washington recently placed visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the arrest of Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP.
Hun Sen has encouraged the U.S. and EU to level sanctions against Cambodia, saying his country will not accept interference in its internal affairs.
But while Hun Sen has suggested sanctions would do little to affect him or his government, union leaders have expressed concerns that the prime minister was playing a dangerous game with Cambodia’s U.S. $7 billion garment industry, which enjoys the benefits of preferential trade status with the U.S. and EU. The EU alone accounts for around 40 percent of Cambodia’s exports.
Cambodia is home to some 740,000 garment and footwear workers, who produce goods for global brands such as Marks & Spencer, H&M, and Adidas. They make up a significant portion of the country’s 8.3 million registered voters, and Hun Sen has been visiting factories regularly in recent weeks to gain their support in the lead up to the July ballot.
The Phnom Penh Post recently cited a leaked letter, dated Dec. 4, in which Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak informed Hun Sen that removal of trade preferences would incur a U.S. $676 million tariff cost based on the $6.2 billion in exports to the EU in 2016. Suspension of preferential access to the U.S. market for certain goods would incur a U.S. $10 million bill, he added.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.